Mark Ritson: The Leave campaign is winning the all-important emotional argument on Brexit

The polls are still within the margin for error, but marketing theory suggests we are heading for Brexit.

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By now you almost certainly know what is at stake. If British voters opt to stay in the European Union next Thursday we lose the last vestiges of sovereignty, immigration will run amok and rule of law will permanently cease to be a matter for British courts. If we vote for Brexit our economy will most certainly crash, we will become a political and economic pariah state and, if European Council President Donald Tusk is to be believed, we will usher in the end of Western political civilisation as we know it.

Clearly, it’s rhetorical nonsense on both sides. The debates have become childish slanging matches in which both sides throw bullshit in ever increasing volumes at the other. I have no idea which way I will vote and even if I did, I certainly would not be advising you what to do. This is Marketing Week after all, not The Spectator.

But I can use my marketing skills to tell you who is more likely to win the vote next week. The current poll of polls has the difference between the leave and stay votes within the margin of error. But if you look more closely at the central arguments of both sides, it’s clear which one will gain the greater popular support and win the day.

To work it out you have to remember your basic marketing training, and specifically the concept of positioning and the benefit ladder. The idea of the benefit ladder is deceptively simple. You start with whatever product feature you believe your product offers that is superior or different from the competition – a micro-camera fitted to a toaster that can identify colours, for example. You then look for the benefit to the target segment that this feature will deliver – perfectly toasted bread every time. Finally, if possible, you push towards the heavens and look for the emotional benefit that this this product benefit will confer – you are the perfect parent because you make perfect toast every time. The higher up the benefit ladder you can authentically base your positioning claim the more powerful and successful it is likely to be.

If we look at the Remain camp it’s obvious what the product feature is – the continuation of the UK’s membership in the European Union. The benefit of staying in Europe is to avoid the fiscal penalties that Brexit would incur. Specifically, the pound will weaken and our economy will worsen. Emotionally that translates into tougher times ahead for families who will face more expensive holidays, less job security and, if George Osborne is to be believed, “£4,300 less money per household by 2030”.

The Remain Argument:

Contrast that with the Brexit argument. Their product feature is to exit the European Union. The benefit of such a move is to return to British sovereignty and the ability to properly control immigration. The emotional benefit of Brexit is to prevent the UK being over-run by a growing tide of foreigners who will weaken the national spirit and use up its precious resources to our detriment.

The Leave Argument:

So which of these two arguments is most important to the British public? Last week’s poll from YouGov has the economy three points above that of immigration. But, there is a big difference between rational box ticking and the emotional implications of these issues when they come close to home. While no one wants to be worse off, the dreaded spectre of continued immigration and all the manifest threats to both economic and cultural life that it portends makes it a far more emotive and therefore persuasive argument. That’s why the most recent polls show that only 66% of Remain believers are definite that they will actually vote next week in contrast with 78% of Leave supporters. That’s a crucial gap when the polls are so tight.

With still so many voters undecided, clearly the vote could go either way. And much depends on how both sides handle the final week of campaigning. But the more the Leave campaign openly and repeatedly pushes a reduction in immigration while the Remain side continues to promote the economic advantages of staying inside the European Union, the more sentiment will swing towards Brexit.

It’s a fascinating case study because the product features of both sides are equally attractive. Half the British population want to remain in the EU and half wish to leave. The population are equally split on whether the economy or immigration is the bigger issue. But this whole decision, arguably the most important one in recent British history, will come down to the benefit ladder and who can play the emotional advantages better than the other. My money, if not my heart, sides with Brexit.

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Mark Ritson presentation

Mark Ritson: Eight marketing concepts – some heavenly, some hellish

Mark Ritson

Mark Ritson, our award-winning columnist, consultant and marketing professor, is never one to shy away from an opinion and he had plenty of those in his talk at Marketing Week Live. Ritson gave his view on the importance (or lack thereof) of eight marketing concepts: millennials, CSR, brand purpose, brand valuation, digital marketing, zero based budgets, targeting and TV advertising.